Ten weeks after we started the balloting process, staff at RMIT University will soon learn whether we’ve been granted the right to take industrial action. The lengthy delay was caused by our employer, three times in a row, objecting to the ballot. By the time we win our legal right to take protected action, the semester will be over and our industrial clout significantly diminished.
RMIT’s blocking tactics illustrate one of the sneakiest ways Australia’s industrial laws are stacked in favour of the bosses. Under the law, workers are allowed to take industrial action, even during a bargaining period, only after a successful ballot of all union members in the workplace. “Successful” means clearing multiple hurdles.
First, a majority must participate in the vote for any result to be valid. This is not a requirement applied to other ballots, including for instance, local council elections, where turnout occasionally dips below 50 percent (as it did in Melbourne’s Port Phillip council election in 2016).
Second, a majority of voters must vote “yes” to each type of potential industrial action listed separately on the ballot.
Third, after both of those hurdles have been cleared, each type of industrial action on the ballot must be initiated by at least one employee within a set time limit. Any action not taken within that time limit is then no longer legally available.
The legal maze through which unions and workers have to navigate to get to industrial action is one of the reasons Australia’s strike laws are regarded as some of the harshest in the world. Speaking to the ABC, labour law professor Andrew Stewart said, “Not only are we flagrantly in breach [of international laws] but our laws are also so restrictive on the right to strike that they are way out of step with the laws of just about every other developed country”.
RMIT has demonstrated that all an employer needs to do is object to the first step in the balloting to hold up industrial action indefinitely. First, in late August, it objected, on a technicality, to a particular clause. The commissioner ordered us back to the drawing board. The second time it objected with no reason given. Still, we were dragged back to the commission.
The third time, in a clear case of outright interference, RMIT directly contacted the Australian Electoral Commission to demand it stop the ballot mail-out. The university had no right to do this, but muddied the water enough that the AEC complied, and we were in the commission for a third time. Only in late October did union members finally begin to receive their ballots.
Since negotiations started in July, RMIT has made no pay offer, nor responded to a single union claim for improved working conditions. The only power that union members have to get things moving is the protected action process. But while refusing to bargain with us, RMIT has instead used its power as an employer, privileged under the law, to block us from taking this path.
This system is a farce. It’s time to get serious about smashing these disgraceful anti-union laws – not with a hash tag and meme but with a determined campaign centred on industrial action.